A Discussion with Suhrob Khaitov, Center on Mental Health and HIV/AIDS - MHAIDS, Tajikistan

With: Suhrob Khaitov

December 18, 2010

Background: This discussion preceded a consultation on faith and development in South and Central Asia in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on January 10-11, 2011. The consultation, an endeavor of the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD), and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, took stock of the range of ongoing work by organizations that are, in varying ways, inspired by religious faith, but more important, explored policy implications that emerge from their interactions with development organizations. The interview was by telephone between Michael Bodakowski and Suhrob Khaitov. Mr. Khaitov reviews the challenges and opportunities surrounding faith engagement in the public and development spheres in Tajikistan. He describes his work with local imams and Muslim communities on HIV prevention. He touches on the tensions between religious groups and the government, and the practical implications. He highlights the development challenges confronting Tajikistan, particularly around gender equality and education.

How did your personal journey and background bring you to the position you are in today?

I was born in 1973 in Tajikistan, attended primary and secondary school there, and then joined the language institute at the University in Dushanbe, in the Department of Russian language and literature. Following graduation, I had a hard time finding a job; in 1995, after the civil war, teaching Russian language in Tajikistan was not possible and it was, generally, very difficult to have a career through teaching. I decided to start a business, and for a while I exported onions to Russia and imported sugar to Tajikistan. In 1997, I studied English and then found employment at the U.S. embassy as a security guard. I worked there for almost eight years; I began as a regular security guard, and finished my career in 2003 as the local Security Chief of the U.S. embassy.

I was next employed by a telecommunications company as the Security Chief, then worked with a private media group with the big Russian language newspapers, Argumenti i Fakti and Komsomolskaya Pravda. In 2010, starting volunteering with MHAIDS in HIV prevention. From February 2010 on I have worked as the administrator of the HIV center, working in the medical clinic. My objective was to help the director to expand the organization. But above all I wanted to help people living with HIV.

Tell us about the Center on Mental Health and HIV/AIDS MHAIDS? What do you do, and with whom do you work?

MHAIDS staff are doctors, psychologists, and experts in the sphere of mental health and HIV/AIDS. Our work focuses on protecting those with metal health issues, and on the prevention of HIV/AIDS and other diseases. Our programs include: psychological support, assistance and protection; training and education programs; strengthening cooperation and coordination between actors; and promoting increased knowledge sharing on mental health and HIV/AIDS, among other related activities.

I work as administrator of the Center, in charge of all the center’s operations. I also facilitate conferences, roundtables, and other meetings.

One of our most successful programs works with imams and in mosques training on issues of HIV/AIDS. My role is to attend and monitor the HIV training sessions in the mosques. Twice a week, we visit the mosque, and talk about HIV with parishioners. I am also responsible for monitoring how the imams are providing education; normally twice a week, another colleague and I talk directly to each parishioner about HIV and prevention care.

What was the reaction of the mosque community when you started your work?

At first, the reactions from the people were a little cold. People did not want to talk about these issues. However, after ten meetings, we felt a change and noticed that more people began to attend the meetings. Already, after our initial conversations, I noticed that some people started to invite friends to attend our sessions. We try to provide information to the parishioners in a sensitive manner. During our Thursday sessions, 10-15 people attend our meetings, but on other days, many people attend and bring their brothers, friends, and relatives. We work in 20 different mosques in Dushanbe, as well as in other areas of the country.

Can you describe the trainings you do and expand on your work with religious leaders?

We hold training sessions where usually at least 30 imams attend. Some are from the capital city of Dushanbe and a few from the outskirts of the city. On the first days of the training, the imams read our training materials. At first, very few were happy with the material and the content of the education sessions. For example, they did not find the information about “HIV as an illness,” useful for them or for us. However, after the third day of training, they mostly changed their minds, and saw that the larger problems facing our society, whether they were related to HIV or drugs or prostitution, need to be approached as a community, especially for long-term solutions. Our training sessions are not just lectures in a formal environment where we preach to the imams. Rather, we engage the imams in conversations about the challenges facing our society; change that must come from the engagement of the heart.

When we visit the mosque, we see how our training sessions have affected their work with the community and their interactions with the parishioners. It is really like witnessing the training sessions put into action. We have been pleased to see that the imams have been successful in implementing the information they have learned during our training session and understand the gravity of the problem of HIV infection in our society. I think this is far more effective than other government officials or programs. The imams play an important role in the community and through these training sessions, they become a significant part of spreading public information. It is very important to concentrate on educating the imams so that they can further disseminate education on social issues to their parishioners.

What have been the results of this program at the local community level?

People take the information we teach and use that knowledge to have further conversations with other members of the community. For example, there are people that work in immigration that we have trained on HIV issues. We have seen how the sessions at the mosque are growing into much larger community engagements.

When did your organization start working with mosques and why did it start this work?

Our program was supported by Christian Aid. It was very difficult at first to invite the mullahs and the imams and to put them around a table and engage them in conversation about very sensitive issues. But, with the help of authority figures, many of whom the imams and mullahs respected, we were able to keep their interest. Our choice for facilitator of the training was the well known imam Khatib, Abdurakhim Nazarov [see separate interview in Berkley series]; he explained the importance of engagement to other mullahs and imams. He was instrumental in explaining these issues and the importance of sharing this information with others in the community and those in positions of religious leadership.

The program is now finished, but it was very useful. If we had the financial resources or a partner organization, we would certainly like to continue the program.

Are there other organizations that are also involved in this line of work?

No, we are the only one.

What is your relationship with Christian Aid?

They are a donor organization for our country program, focused on the imam training program. I know that they are providing financial support for other HIV initiatives in the country.

Are other similar organizations working in the country? Do you see any special challenges for faith-inspired organizations to work in Tajikistan?

I know only the work of Christian Aid. The general situation in Tajikistan is that all things concerning religion are tightly under the control of the government. There is a central religious committee that controls all the religious affairs. A Christian church organization is part of this religious committee. The government does not like to include religious organizations as partners for any projects that they want to implement, as there is a general suspicion of religious groups and organizations. Christian churches, Jewish organizations and Muslim organizations are also members of the government committees. Many religious organizations were blocked from participating, for example some Salafi groups and some Tablighi groups. Some Christian groups were blocked as well.

How about civil society organizations more generally?

There are many groups dealing with different issues in various sectors, including HIV. But not all of them work very seriously. They take money to implement programs but then do not really fulfill their obligations. We call them “pocket NGOs.” Despite the many NGOs in the country, in my experience, only a few really work for the betterment of the community. Some organizations do work on human rights and issues related to children, and there are some other NGOs dealing with technology.

What has the transition from Soviet rule been like in the Tajikistan?

During the Soviet period, all religions, Judaism, Christianity, as well as Islam, were blocked from the public sphere. This had negative effects on the development of public religious life, that are evident to this day. After the fall of the Soviet Union, access to information has been more open, and certainly more books have been allowed into the country. Religious books have been translated into Russian and Tajik, and it has helped to increase the level of education in the religious sphere. Islam as a religion is very open to education and promotes the expansion of knowledge in all spheres, religious and non-religious alike; it is a requirement in the tradition for all Muslims to become educated.

Things today are very different; people are becoming more devote Muslims with every passing day. Islam has a powerful effect on people and enables them to change their entire way of life. They stop drinking alcohol, stop visiting prostitutes, and stop participating in other vices. This is a very positive social development for the government and an effective way to solve societal problems. Islam requires all devotees to behave in certain ways towards their family and with their spouse and parents. Thus I believe that the integration of religion into society is helping to solve many problems that our community faced during the Soviet era. However, some people see the growing role of Islam as a danger to national security.

What in your view are the main challenges facing Tajikistan today?

There are many. Tajikistan’s socio-economic difficulties make women and children especially vulnerable. Currently women make up 19 percent of manpower (in the workforce), compared to 80 percent before independence, and they are being employed six times less than men. Nearly 60 percent of women are engaged in agricultural or the informal sectors, which offer poor guarantees fora safe and sustainable living. Only 37 percent of girls have 11-year secondary education, as compared to 63 percent of boys. Gender inequality extends to higher, professional and technical education. Other problems facing women in Tajikistan include unequal access to land and low levels of participation in municipal and local government, which leads to women’s concerns being overlooked by governing bodies.

Though in practice inequalities exist, women have rights in Islam and under our Constitution. Sharia law actually protects women’s rights, but many Muslim men do not follow the tenets of sharia law; they interpret things in their own way. It is part of man’s nature. I have seen imams during Friday prayers at the mosque make an effort to mention the role of women as our mothers, our sisters, our daughters.

Blocking women’s rights is harmful to our children. If our daughters and sons see the attitudes of their fathers towards their mothers and they see that fathers do not respect mothers, that is the type of behavior that children will learn. Girls see this as a rule, and it perpetuates the practice. Finally, when something happens, and when women divorce, or when women live outside of the home with no education—they do not know their rights. Imams talk about these issues in their sermons. Our lord in the Qur’an says that you should protect your family and that everyone in society should have equal rights.

There has to be willingness in the community to come together and work to solve these problems. In our society this willingness is rarely there. Everyone tries to solve personal problems, but people do not bind together with neighbors and brothers to solve the problems that affect everybody. Everyone is busy with their personal problems and it is difficult for them to talk about the orphans and other humanitarian issues in our country, of which there are many.

Why do you think there is this lack of cohesion around social issues?

I think it is because people are so concerned about the future that they tend to ignore the present. They do not concentrate on what is happening now, only on tomorrow.

What are the effects of conflict on society? What peacebuilding initiatives have you seen?

Education is the most important and effective method for peacebuilding. If our population had more education, we could avoid war and other problems that continue to plague us. I emphasize education because the lack of education is a major problem of our population, our government, and our society.

Civil society has made significant efforts in conflict resolution and peacebuilding. Since the General Agreement on the Establishment of Peace and National Accord was signed in June 1997, the government has promoted post-conflict confidence building and national reconciliation. International agencies have provided funding for conflict resolution activities. The combination of political conditions and financial resources stimulated the growth of conflict resolution and confidence building activities in civil society.

How do you see civil society in Tajikistan today?

Civil society actors range from informal grassroots associations, including community councils and neighborhood associations, to more formal, officially registered non-governmental civic associations or NGO, implementing conflict resolution, dialogue. and education programs. The initiatives are gradually changing the political, social and even psychological atmosphere in the country. As I noted earlier, only a limited number of actors are “really working.”

Most NGOs conduct their conflict resolution work at community level on projects that include training workshops and discussion-based activities for representatives of local village and elders' councils, different ethnic and regional groups, and local officials.

Some NGOs concentrate on drawing neighborhood and village councils into conflict resolution projects. The number of NGOs is growing in rural areas and are they increasingly engaged in conflict resolution.

Women have played an important role in Tajikistan's civil society and women's groups have taken a lead in civil society conflict resolution efforts. Our organization, the Center on Mental Health and HIV/AIDS, has a woman as its president. More than 35 percent of Tajik NGOs are headed by women.

What is the state of education in Tajikistan?

Standards of education in the country are very low, except for private schools. These schools have the most qualified teachers, because they are paid a good salary. In government schools, the teachers make about $20 per month; that is barely enough money to buy anything, due to inflation . Teachers tend not to care deeply about the education of the students because they are immersed in their own personal problems—their family, their children etc.

If people cannot take care of their own family, it creates a horrible sense of unhappiness and distrust. One certainly cannot depend on the government to take care of the family. As a response, in the mosque, the imam might advise the children to educate themselves—the imams tell the children that if there is no one to teach you, you should teach yourselves—think about yourself first, and educate yourself. The imams teach the children that education is the most important thing to secure their future otherwise they will find themselves doing manual work.

Is there informal education through mosques?

Not at the mosques, but there are some private groups that educate children; the education is mostly restricted to the religious sphere, however, reading the Qur’an or the Hadith. The government controls everything and they routinely search for groups that are trying to teach religious education and prohibit their activities. Religion is under strict government control and the mosque is not permitted to educate or provide civic education, nor are they allowed to open more madrassas. The mullahs may be concerned about the lack of children’s education but they are not permitted to educate the population.

What is the situation with religious extremism in the country?

I cannot say if imams and mullahs are working with terrorist groups, but they are spreading information en masse about not following religion in the right way. Some warn the community actively against joining extremist groups. I think that these extremist groups are generally misguided. They might be trying to improve people’s lives, but they also have other agendas and purposes. I know that the work of imams can positively affect national security, and they are useful to the government in this respect. If we block the work of imams, it will be detrimental to the country and will not help to stop extremism. I do not think that an effective way to stop extremism is to block the mosques and the madrasas and to forbid women to wear a hijab. With this type of behavior the government is blocking the oxygen of religion. The result is that the government is, through its actions, creating extremist groups.

Religion is like a spring; when you press down constantly you will eventually get tired, and one day this spring is going to spring up, with double impact. That is why it is dangerous for security, for the government to restrict religion. The government must control religion to some degree, but not block it from the community and not filter the positive work of religion that can contribute to society.

Have you been involved in any interfaith initiatives?

Muslims and Christians here have wonderful attitudes towards each other and towards the community in general. Compared to other countries, interfaith relations here are warm—Muslims and Christians are like brothers. During the war, Christian and Muslim organizations tried to work for peacebuilding. Now, however, with every religion under the control of the government, such initiatives are less common.

What networks do you belong to or do you know of and how are these helpful?

Going to the mosque and talking to the people is our form of networking.

What kinds of issues would you like to see addressed during the consultation? What are the most important gaps in knowledge at the intersection of faith and development?

I would like to hear the experiences of other groups and organizations, exchange information, and invite some of them here to Tajikistan as well. I would like to find organizations with whom we can work and cooperate on different community projects.

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